The Wolfenstein Dilemma: Can Big Games Handle Big Themes?

Recently, I've found myself reacting quite strongly against games I haven't played yet. Occasionally, to games that haven't even been released yet. I've found myself immediately sceptical and hostile when a game's marketing tells me that it has something to say "about" some serious theme or social commentary.

I've found myself immediately assuming that the game is not, in fact, going to say anything interesting about that topic at all. It's an odd feeling, a pre-emptive hostility that I certainly didn't used to feel towards games.

Last week, when Ubisoft released the cover art of their upcoming Far Cry 4 -- a game we are yet to see any footage of -- I echoed the many on Twitter who pointed out how the cover is clearly racist. There's the man that many have perceived as Caucasian sitting on a throne, a cowering Asian man on his knees before him in an amazing literalisation of colonialism.

Some have defended the cover, at least insisting that we wait until we play "the game itself" before we start criticising. But as others still have pointed out, Ubisoft have deliberately released this cover to be consumed as a marketing text in its own right, and considering the series' previous game's own poor treatment of colonial and racist undertones, it was inevitable that such criticisms would be made.

Also last week, the new Wolfenstein game came out. When Id created the first Wolfenstein game in the early 90s, they established many of the conventions that still exist today in the first-person shooter genre. Now, like many older IPs, Wolfenstein demands a new, rebooted franchise every few years -- just like Superman or Batman.

This time, developers MachineGames decided to take the alternate history route, asking what the 1960s would be like if the Nazi's won World War Two. There is a scene in the game where the player has to infiltrate a concentration camp. Now, again, I have not played Wolfenstein yet, but when I heard that this scene existed, I immediately balked at the idea of a blockbuster first-person shooter even considering depicting the horrors of a concentration camp.

It was a gut reaction that I'm interested in understanding. Obviously, as a game critic, I think videogames are no less able to tackle difficult or challenging topics than any other medium: if films and literature can say something meaningful about concentration camps, then surely videogames can, too? At the very least, at the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, it has been over a decade since several Australian developers created Escape From Woomera, highlighting the plight of refugees detained in Australia's own interment camps, so surely it is possible to present Nazi concentration camps in a meaningful manner?

The obvious answer is "yes". But why do I not trust Wolfenstein to be that game? It's not because of a distaste for commercial first-person shooters, a genre that I voluntarily spend a lot of time playing. Maybe it is because it is a franchise that, in its first iteration, had a boss fight against Hitler riding around in a giant, Gatling gun-equipped mech that, when it blew up, showed a slow-motion replay of it blowing up a second time.

Maybe I just have little faith that a game where the main mechanical vocabulary is pulling the right trigger to fire a gun at someone's head will be able to say something about the horrors of the Holocaust. Just like I wouldn't expect Burnout, a game about spectacular crashes while street racing, to have something meaningful to say about the horrible consequences of speeding.

Is it that I don't think blockbuster "triple-A" games are capable of big, mature themes? I am okay with an indie or "arty" games trying to tackle grim topics but if it is a blockbuster titles whose primary goal is to return a profit for its publishers, do I think it is too "tainted" to say much of anything? That seems like a problematic distinction, perpetuating a "high" and "low" brow divide across arty and popular games. Besides, I both enjoy and write about blockbuster games all the time, no less than I do indie games. Heck, I wrote an entire book about a triple-a game that was very clearly "about" something. That game, too, was a reinvention of a long-running series. So why the double standard?

So why this scepticism I feel towards Wolfenstein's concentration camp, Far Cry 4's colonial overtones and, also, if I am being completely honest, Watch Dog's commentary on surveillance culture (moments after it asks you register for Uplay, no doubt)? I think it's that I've been burned by too many games in the last 18 months that feel front-loaded with "Themes". That is, blockbuster games that before their release, have made a big deal about being about this or that topic. Except then, when they are actually released, they are just another conventional blockbuster title with just the faintest layer of Themes painted on top.

Bioshock: Infinite is perhaps the best example of such a recent game that I can think of. Before its release, it was deliberately marketed as a game about racism and American nationalism. Except when it came out, it didn't actually have much to say about it at all. The extent of its engagement with these themes could be boiled down to "Hey, racism exists but maybe everyone is equally bad". Or Grand Theft Auto V, a game supposedly about "masculinity", which has even less to say about anything than Bioshock: Infinite.

It's part of a broader trend among blockbuster games to try to seem "mature" or "serious" by injecting some Themes without actually addressing them on anything more than a surface level. These are games that are "mature" or "serious" in the same way I thought Marilyn Manson was mature and serious when I was fifteen because he swore a lot. They are commenting on these themes to the extent that they are acknowledging that, yes, these are things that exist. That's it.

And, sadly, I've come to realise that this has altered my expectations of any blockbuster game that markets itself as being about any one particular thing. I now expect such themes to be the thinnest veneer that can be waved around in marketing material with no deeper analysis or engagement with them. It's perhaps why the blockbuster games that I think are most successfully about something (Driver: San Francisco, Binary Domain, Bulletstorm) do so without trying to convince me beforehand that they are about anything in particular. It just emerges as I engage with them over time.

To stress, the problem isn't that games must be really meaningful to be important. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a game "just" being fun to play, even being slightly ridiculous. That is completely fine. But I want games to own that, to be confident about their desire to be "just" fun without an airbrushing of themes on top. Either tackle larger themes, or don't. I thirst for that confidence of direction.

Of course, presumptions are usually unfair. Tomb Raider, for instance, caught a whole heap of slack for seemingly revolting depictions and suggestions of sexual violence before the game was released, unhelped by the executive produce saying in an interview how they wanted players (presumed to be male), to "protect" Lara, not "be" Lara. Yet, when the game came out, it was a largely refreshing game about an empowered young women protagonist standing up for herself. It wasn't perfect, but it was far less problematic than the pre-release material suggested. This isn't to say the pre-release criticism was misguided, but that sometimes blockbuster games can surpass that understandable scepticism.

So maybe one day when I play Wolfenstein or Far Cry 4 or Watch Dogs I'll find myself eating my own words and accepting that they dealt with their respective themes in a mature and intelligent way. It's entirely possible. But for now, I guess I just feel very sceptical and cynical towards big game releases that present themselves as "about something" when, so often, it turns out to just be a marketing tactic.The Conversation

Brendan Keogh is a PhD Candidate, Game Studies at RMIT University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    These days if a game contains racism, sexism, anti feminism, the holocaust, rape, misogyny, patriarchy, class segregation etc etc, then its immediately pounced upon as being worse then Hitler.

    i mean how dare a video game use (sometimes arguably) contentious topics for any reason, its not like any other medium would stoop to these levels to make a dollar.

    Are we as gamers old enough and mature enough to interact with these themes? or is it a case of will someone please think of the children, and how dare you point out evil things to us.

      Well said! Seems to be the case of people jumping to conclusions without even getting their facts straight by actually playing the game and seeing if their concerns are justified or just jumping on a cause or bandwagon

    I don't think they actually ever called it a concentration camp. Think they just called it a "forced labour camp". Hell, I can't even think of any anti Jewish stuff. They did mention Auschwitz in passing and a lot about German and Aryan superiority but they seem to have avoided a lot of the heavier stuff.

      Yep. They avoided the heaviest of stuff. It was more of a serial take on it, a 'Nazis are bad mmmmkay? We're gonna kill the nazis! They're bad bad guys!' Keeping it light, the Nazis are bad, you shoot them, they die. That sort of thing. It didn't touch on the heaviest of tones. This article is kind of putting too much into it I think...


    PhD pls.

    I'm puzzled by the assertion that GTA5's exploration (or lampooning, or even just straight-up portrayal) of major themes in masculinity weren't explored.

    The father/husband provider, wrestling with his inner demons of aggression, lust, and conquest and how they conflict with the social contract that provides safety for wife and children? That's kind of a big deal.

    Franklin dealing with a masculine gang culture and expectations, resolving the ambition he has for himself as priorities that lost him his girlfriend. Finding a father figure in Michael to handle those aforementioned issues of a masculine pursuit of ambition and power that do not sink in to a young man when delivered/discussed (or rather, NOT) by the womanly power of his aunt.

    And Trevor, the cautionary tale of just how ugly the animalistic man can get when left unchecked by social pressures. Yet tempered by fraternal love, and wrestling with how to deal with it when it's not reciprocated, accepted, or understood. Strip Trev down sometime and check out his tatts. He mourned his brother.

    To say that the challenges and themes of masculinity in modern society weren't heavily on-display or dealt with is to either have completely misunderstood the game, or to not know anything about the challenges of masculinity.

    Last edited 27/05/14 5:59 pm

      Absolutely agree. I saw this clear as day but never heard any mention of it literally anywhere. It's as if it were intentionally ignored or dismissed because condemnation is seemingly the only reasonable response towards the exploration of masculinity, as if exploring an alternate (yet equally important) viewpoint is harming the gender role issue in some way.

      I feel GTAV was a great addition to the debate (and also debates on violence, the role of the player and propaganda/advertising that are also completely ignored by the media at large) yet largely dismissed or condemned in completely generalised fashion.

      Big games can easily handle big themes. It just takes a willing publisher, a talented developer and media who aren't prone to knee-jerk dismissal that they continue to debate whilst largely ignoring the voice and discourse of their readers. So... um... maybe not.

        GTAV suffers pretty badly from ludonarrative dissonance though. One minute you're going through everything @transientmind up there is talking about, the next you're ramping a truck into a schoolyard while a hooker blows you in the cabin (hyperbole).

        Not that I have a problem with that. But it is kind of what the author is talking about.

          The main difference there though, is that the actual narrative of the game there gives you the depth of character @transientmind talks about, but your own personal choice allows you to do the kind of dickish things you do describe (and you most definitely can!) So you CAN be a misogynistic bastard if you want, or you can be the entire opposite and not do that sort of thing, it's 110% up to you.

        "It's as if it were intentionally ignored or dismissed"
        It may have been too subtle for most people to even notice; I'm gonna come right out and say I didn't even think about it while I was playing. Hell, I didn't even notice the motherhood theme that's plastered all over Super Metroid until I read an article about it years later.

    I don't know... I kept reading this article and thinking "you're expecting too much". You don't go and complain that Captain America didn't depict Nazi camps accurately enough, yet he's in the top grossing films of the year. If the goal of Wolfenstein was to educate people on the horrors of war and turned out as it has, that would be a different story. Games like those you've mentioned are intending to be fiction, they're intended to entertain and (omg) make money. Games like the mentioned Woomera escape is intended as an educational tool and can't be used in comparison here. Likewise Bioshock, its a money maker not an educator.

    Theres a fine line that games walk where they throw in just enough reality to immerse people and political, racism and wartime themes are quite popular... but if you're expecting a big budget game to give you a decent education on the matter, you may as well expect to walk into the next Transformers movie and come out knowing more of the effect of communism in China.

      You're right, but I think the thing the author was taking umbrage with is that the marketing for the games (or simply the defenders of the game) claims that these are issues the game will confront in a productive way.

      And even when they don't make that claim, there is something to the idea of being offended that someone might take a serious subject and treat it so frivolously - it can be disrespectful.

      That said... as I mentioned around the themes for masculinity in GTA5, I don't think the author gives these games enough credit for what they achieve, or even what they try to achieve.

      He references the racism in Bioshock Infinite - you do spend the first half or more of the game thinking unkind thoughts about this 'ideal' society of sky-racists, but by the end, find yourself cringing and thinking, "Well, maybe scalping is taking it a bit far..." Unless you're some kind of demented psychopath, anyway. Wild retribution and role-reversal is highlighted in all its ugliness, making a pretty clear statement: there's a difference between progress and catharsis.

      There's some interesting themes nestled in the cracks between even CoD's famous single-player campaign set-pieces, but I'd wager the average CoD-fan doesn't have a fucking clue. Just like @freezespreston suggested about GTA5, that ludo-narrative dissonance that comes from still having a game and offering the player that agency means that not everyone's going to get the message and will instead consider Trevor to be their favourite character because he's utterly remorseless and unashamed of his homicidal tendencies or any other personality flaw, and this offers some kind of freedom.

    "I am a games critic, I haven't played the game, I will write a whole article about my opinions"
    I am a gamer, I played the game, I will comment
    It's a game,at best it prompts discussion, at worst it's fun. Writing it up as a thesis is filling the Internet with more meaningless commentary pretending to be relevant (like this comment)
    How about rather than be the critic, put your ideas forward as a something useful (like a game) and show us how moralistic storytelling should be done - and someone else can be the critic

    The concept of 'criticism before experience' is one of the main reasons videogames will struggle to ever be considered a serious medium of art. In any other medium, if you posited a criticism based on what you 'saw', without actually experiencing it, you'd be decried. But in videogame criticism it has become all too prevalent to cast aspersions on a narrative without ever experiencing it. Can you imagine a film critic saying 'Amistad is racist, as it depicts African slaves'? They'd be laughed out of the profession.

    Context is everything, and sadly, its an element that is often overlooked by game critics and audiences as a whole.

    I wrestle with this very thing myself. I find it odd that Watch Dogs seems to have this really neat, socially relevant concept wrapped around what appears to be a by the numbers open-world GTA clone. I could be wrong, but I suspect I'm not. I'll be picking up the game tomorrow to find out at any rate.
    I just can't take Triple A games seriously when it comes to heavy themes and subtext. Mostly because they are focus tested to the max, and cater to the biggest audience possible. Of course, there are exceptions. I shouldn't be judgmental like that, but I am. I do the same with music, movies and TV.
    Games get a little leeway, in that the medium is still in it's relative infancy, but it seems to be heading down the typical Movie/Music route. We've got Blockbusters, indie titles, genre favourites etc...
    That makes it very easy to apply the logic I've formed around Movies and Music to games.

    Is it a racist cover, or is it a cover with a racist on it? Is a cover with a man holding a gun a murderous cover, or a cover with a murderer on it? Reminds me of the most recent Tropfest hoohar - A story that involved a homophobe was somehow automatically branded as a homophobic story.

      Yeah this is what they miss. Once something enters into a certain area people just think static and shut everything out. OMG it's racist!

      Why was it all, ' the game is racist, the cover is racist' and not, 'that looks like an evil colonialist on the cover, what's the story about?'

      Nope the game is forever tainted as racist by many.

    The title of this article should have been "I'm goin to use my ignorance to try and make me look smart".

    There is no "concentration camp level". There's a labour camp where people are occasionally taken away and their bodies burned, but this is suggested to be because they are disposing of people after performing experiments, not in a continuation of the holocaust. It's a narrative tool to reinforce the belief that, as a resistance fighter/rebel/terrorist versus the established regime, you are still the one with the just cause.

    Wolfenstein the New Order does touch on some heavy themes and lends them the appropriate gravitas, but it does not delve too deeply into the more extreme issues because no, an FPS game where you fight Nazi/Robot hybrids is probably not the best arena for this discussion.

    I suggest you play the game, Brendan. I'm a little disappointed you wrote this article before doing so, especially after your excellent critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line.

    Is there an element at play here, of people being conditioned to feel like they need to be offended at everything that's thrown their way instead of just enjoying something for what it is? Not so much about expectations, but rather the constant need to find problems with something. Anything.

    Wolfenstein for instance turned out to be an excellent game. The story is very deep for a game in the first person shooter genre - especially when you consider its origins. It dwells on morality and even deep philosophical ideas that I haven't seen in any other game. I mean what other game discusses free will and consciousness? In a non convoluted and forced way to boot.

    You can take the game as a superficial FPS with no brains, skipping all the cut scenes and just shotting Nazis. But if you pay careful attention to the underlying themes, it's richer than most films or books coming out nowadays.

    I personally think you should only complain about 'adult themes' in games if those games are trivializing those themes. You shouldn't complain games go too far or not far enough based on some expectation or pre-existing expectations and then judge it on that. It's still a developing medium and they need to take risks. If you continue to react negatively and badly to anything serious or adult in games, it just perpetuates the notion that games are not a serious medium and just for little kids.

    If COD: Zombies had a map in a concentration camp. I think it'd be fair to say it's inappropriate, but that's not what you're talking about here. You're talking about adult drama and story in video games.

    What this article really shows is, that you don't take video games seriously as an adult medium and so probably should not be writing about them.

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